Museums on wheels: Old-timer cars still rule on Cuba's roads
By Simone Andrea Mayer Jan 3, 2012, 3:06 GMT
Havana/Santiago de Cuba - The old road cruiser rattles when the engine is started up. A blue cloud of smoke spews forth from the exhaust pipe. Taxi driver Jorge and two passengers are off on a shaky journey in the car - a 1957-built Cheyenne. The vibrations on the floor almost feel like a foot massage.
The ride in the old-timer taxi through Havana is a bumpy one. Through the open windows the scents of the city come wafting in - petrol and exhaust fumes emitted by the cars - Chevrolets, Cheyennes, Cadillacs and Dodges.
Until recently, most cars and taxis on Cuba were at least 20 years old - either the boxy, Soviet-built Ladas making a comeback on the island, or American-built limousines dating back to before the Cuban revolution in 1959.
Business with new cars had been banned for a good half a century, but was just reinstated in September. As a result, the street scenery has changed, and here and there one sees new imported French or Spanish cars.
But it is still the ancient, 50-year-old limousines which dominate the streets - they are the everyday vehicles for Cubans and are taxis with a special flair. You can either wave one over from the side of the street, or else pick the prettiest one from a long line of waiting taxis at the Capitolio, or parliament building, in Havana.
The rides are cheap as the driver chauffeurs you around the city, providing commentary in English.
The wind - that is, the exhaust fumes - waft through the open windows. The car nudges its way forward in thick city traffic through the downtown area. The air is filled with the noise of honking horns and drivers shouting.
The ride takes you past the grey bunker that is the Hotel Nacional, past the empty Plaza de la Revolucion square, the lively Parque Central, and past scenes of both poverty and joy on the streets.
Driver Jorge stops here and there to become a photographer, using the tourists' cameras to take pictures of them posing in front of buildings, monuments, large trees, and the John Lennon Statue.
On the outside, the old-timer cars have been polished to a gleaming finish. But the interiors are in a frightful condition to most Europeans. Everything was built before the revolution. Every effort to maintain the cars cannot compensate for the lack of spare parts due to the many years of US trade embargo against the socialist country.
Door handles are missing, there are holes in the upholstery, and wires protrude from the dashboard. The seats have been stitched. In Jorge's Cheyenne, the speedometer doesn't work.
But nevertheless, guests sit comfortably, leaning back on the wide seat while Havana's street scenery slides past. A one-hour tour costs around 13 dollars. The asking price for a ride in a convertible is about three times that much - but you can always bargain with the driver.
It is cheaper when taking a taxi for a single ride. In Santiago de Cuba, it is well worth taking one to the nearest beach, Playa Siboney. The road cruiser takes about 30 minutes for the trip out of the city, rolling past banana plantations and farmhouses.
'Every driver is reliable in picking tourists up again at the appointed time,' the driver, Gadiel, promises. And he keeps to his word - and as a 'matter of honour,' he'll only take payment once he has returned you to the city. The round-trip fare comes to around 20 dollars.
In Cuba, one rarely rides in a taxi alone. Suddenly, Gadiel pulls the car over to the side of the road and a woman named Mariza hops in.
'Hola' she says as she kisses Gadiel - and then the startled tourists - on the cheek. And right away you are informed of the latest gossip - a neighbour has died, a niece is getting married, and next weekend, so-and-so is throwing a party.
The locals use shared taxi services in the same way. Nobody knows anyone else, but everybody is talking animatedly while the vehicle - a bus but also occasionally an older lorry - drives along a specific route.
The drivers will often warn off foreign visitors by calling out 'no tourista' - but if there's no policeman around to see it, then you can hop in, paying somewhat more than the locals.
The engine groans to life, the bus grinds its way forward. Viva, Cuba!